Capital: Tshwane/Pretoria
Population: 49,900,000

Political Rights Score: 2 *
Civil Liberties Score: 2 *
Status: Free


South Africa successfully hosted soccer's 2010 World Cup tournament despite concerns about criminal violence and the rule of law. In keeping with a recent trend, there were a number of threats to freedom of the press during the year, including proposed legislation for a statutory media council and a set of potentially wide-ranging regulations on the publication of "sensitive" information. In August, public-sector workers staged a massive, three-week strike that shut down schools and hospitals throughout the country.

In 1910, the Union of South Africa was created as a self-governing dominion of the British Empire. The Afrikaner-dominated National Party (NP) came to power in 1948 on a platform of institutionalized racial separation, or "apartheid," that was designed to maintain white minority rule. Partly as a result, South Africa declared formal independence in 1961 and withdrew from the Commonwealth. The NP went on to govern South Africa under the apartheid system for decades. Mounting domestic and international pressure prompted President F. W. de Klerk to legalize the antiapartheid African National Congress (ANC) and release ANC leader Nelson Mandela from prison in 1990. Between then and 1994, when the first multiracial elections were held, almost all apartheid-related legislation was abolished, and an interim constitution was negotiated and enacted.

The ANC won the 1994 elections in a landslide, and Mandela was elected president. As required by the interim constitution, a national unity government was formed, including the ANC, the NP, and the Zulu-nationalist Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP). A Constitutional Assembly produced a permanent constitution, which was signed into law in 1996. The ANC claimed almost two-thirds of the vote in 1999 elections, and Thabo Mbeki, Mandela's successor as head of the ANC, won the presidency. In 2004, the ANC won an even greater victory, taking nearly 70 percent of the national vote and majorities in seven of nine provincial legislatures. Mbeki easily secured a second five-year term.

In late 2007, former deputy president Jacob Zuma defeated Mbeki in a heated battle for the presidency of the ANC, and Zuma's allies were elected to a majority of ANC executive positions; Mbeki had sacked Zuma in 2005 after he was implicated in the corruption trial of his financial adviser, Schabir Shaik. Relations between the ANC and Mbeki's government were strained throughout 2008, and in September – after a High Court judge set aside the remaining corruption charges against Zuma due to prosecutorial misconduct – the ANC's national executive committee forced Mbeki to resign as state president. The party nominated its deputy president, Kgalema Motlanthe, to serve as interim state president, and he was quickly confirmed by the National Assembly. After Mbeki's ouster, recently resigned defense minister Mosiuoa "Terror" Lekota quit the ANC and formed a new opposition party. A series of ANC leaders – nearly all of them Mbeki allies – moved to the new party, which was formally registered as Congress of the People (COPE) in December 2008.

Despite the new competition from COPE, the ANC won another sweeping victory in the April 2009 elections, taking 65.9 percent of the national vote, 264 seats in the 400-seat National Assembly, and clear majorities in eight of nine provinces. The Democratic Alliance (DA) retained its status as the largest opposition party, winning 67 National Assembly seats and outright control of Western Cape Province. COPE won 30 seats, the IFP took 18, and a collection of smaller parties secured the remainder. Zuma was easily elected state president by the National Assembly the following month, winning 277 of the 400 votes.

Despite fears about criminal violence and lack of transport infrastructure, South Africa successfully hosted soccer's World Cup tournament in 2010, deploying some 40,000 additional police officers and establishing a special system of courts to deal with cases related to the competition. The year also featured increased government pressure on the independent press. In July, the Zuma government introduced a draft Protection of Information Bill that would allow state agencies to classify a wide range of information – including "all matters relating to the advancement of the public good" and "the survival and security of the state" – as in the "national interest" and thus subject to significant restrictions on publication and disclosure. The bill, which was set to be debated again in early 2011, mandated prison terms of 3 to 25 years for violations. In addition, the government renewed parliamentary discussion of a proposed statutory media council that would regulate journalistic standards and responsibilities. Both the information bill and the council plan were met with vociferous opposition from the media, press freedom advocates, legal experts, and opposition parties.

Some 5.5 million South Africans, about 11 percent of the population, are infected with HIV. A 2008 Harvard University study claimed that 330,000 people had died between 2000 and 2005 as a result of the Mbeki government's skepticism about the link between HIV and AIDS. While state-funded access to antiretroviral drugs has expanded in recent years, in 2009 the AIDS Law Project reported that 40 percent of HIV-positive South Africans were not receiving treatment. In April 2010, the government launched a campaign to administer HIV tests to 15 million people over 12 months; 2.8 million had been tested by October.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties

South Africa is an electoral democracy with a bicameral Parliament. Elections for the 400-seat National Assembly are determined by party-list proportional representation, and the 90 members of the National Council of Provinces are selected by the provincial legislatures. The National Assembly elects the president to serve concurrently with its five-year term.

The ANC, which has won supermajorities in every democratic election, dominates the political landscape. The DA is the leading opposition party, followed by COPE and the IFP. The electoral process is generally free and fair, although the state-owned South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC) has been accused of pro-ANC bias. Political violence, while never severe, increased in the run-up to the 2009 elections. According to the Mail & Guardian, there were 40 incidents of electoral violence in 2009, most "at the level of intimidation or clashes" in KwaZulu-Natal and the Eastern Cape. Five politicians were killed in election-related violence, including four in KwaZulu-Natal. In addition, party officials engaged in inflammatory rhetoric during the campaign.

Several agencies are tasked with combating corruption, but enforcement is inadequate. Public servants regularly fail to declare their business interests as required by law, and the ANC has been criticized for charging fees to business leaders for access to top government officials. Corruption is a problem among lower-level civil servants – particularly within the Departments of Home Affairs and Human Settlements – as well as high-ranking officials. In July 2010, former police commissioner Jackie Selebi was sentenced to 15 years in prison for accepting a large bribe from an organized crime boss. Between 2006 and 2009, current president Jacob Zuma was three times charged with corruption and cleared of those charges on procedural grounds. In several instances, the tender process for contracts associated with the 2010 World Cup were alleged to be corrupt and nontransparent; in a few cases, journalists and local activists reported tender-related violence. South Africa was ranked 54 out of 178 countries surveyed in Transparency International's 2010 Corruption Perceptions Index.

Freedoms of expression and the press are protected in the constitution and generally respected in practice. A number of private newspapers and magazines are sharply critical of powerful figures and institutions. Most South Africans receive the news via radio outlets, a majority of which are controlled by the SABC. The SABC also dominates the television market, but two commercial stations are expanding their reach. Internet access is unrestricted and growing rapidly, though many South Africans cannot afford the service fee.

The government is sensitive to media criticism and has increasingly encroached on the editorial independence of the SABC. Government critics have been barred or restricted from SABC airwaves, while a number of critical documentaries and special programs produced by the broadcaster have been canceled due to political considerations. In 2009, SABC internal auditors – investigating the leak of a canceled program to the Mail & Guardian newspaper – searched the offices of the unit that produced the program and subjected staff to lie-detector tests. In addition, the government in recent years has enacted and proposed potentially restrictive legislation. The 2009 Film and Publications Amendment Act requires any publisher not recognized by the press ombudsman – or any person who wishes to distribute, broadcast, or exhibit a film or game – to submit any potentially pornographic or violence-inciting materials to a government board for approval. The law also allows for the banning of such materials, which are broadly defined. In 2010, the government sent a widely criticized Protection of Information Bill to Parliament and continued to air the possibility of an ANC-proposed statutory media tribunal that would police journalistic standards. In December, Zuma announced a R5 million ($677,000) defamation lawsuit against Sunday Times cartoonist Jonathan Shapiro over a controversial 2008 political cartoon.

Freedom of religion and academic freedom are constitutionally guaranteed and actively protected by the government.

Freedoms of association and peaceful assembly are also secured by the constitution. South Africa hosts a vibrant civil society and an embedded protest culture. Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) can register and operate freely, and lawmakers regularly accept input from NGOs on pending legislation. In 2010, the government's proposed restrictions on press freedom were met with repeated protests by journalists and press freedom advocates. A recent trend of protests over the pace and extent of public-service delivery – including housing, electricity, and water – continued during the year. The organization Municipal IQ reported that service delivery protests in 2010 outpaced those in 2009, though most protests were concentrated in the beginning of the year. In March, the NGO Abahlali baseMjondolo (AB) organized a march through Durban to protest lack of housing, drawing thousands of participants; 13 AB members were arrested during a spate of related rioting, and eight were granted bail. In 2009, AB had accused ANC supporters of torching its headquarters as well as the home of its president, who is now in hiding.

South Africans are free to form, join, and participate in independent trade unions. The Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU), which claims over two million members, is part of a tripartite governing alliance with the ANC and the South African Communist Party. Strike activity is common, and was widespread in 2010. In August, approximately 1.3 million public-sector workers – including many teachers and health workers – staged a three-week strike over pay and housing allowances. The action was marred by numerous instances of violence and intimidation by strikers, including the blocking of patients from entering hospitals and the threatening of students at schools. Roads were blocked as well. In late August, the army deployed more than 1,800 medical staff to 47 hospitals, and police used rubber bullets and water hoses to disperse protesters in Soweto, Durban, and other locations. The strike ended in early September, and an agreement addressing the workers' grievances was reached in October. Autoworkers and some mine workers also mounted strikes during 2010.

Judicial independence is guaranteed by the constitution, and the courts – particularly the Constitutional Court (CC) and the Supreme Court – operate with substantial autonomy. Nevertheless, judicial and prosecutorial independence has come under pressure in recent years amid the Zuma corruption cases, prompting several instances of both judicial and political misconduct. While Zuma's five appointments to the CC in October 2009 were welcomed by opposition parties and legal organizations, his November appointment of former Justice Ministry director general Menzi Simelane to head the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) was condemned by many opposition parties and civil society groups, who pointed to Simelane's lack of qualifications and allegedly unlawful role in the politically tainted dismissal of former NPA head Vusi Pikoli in 2008.

Staff and resource shortages undermine defendants' procedural rights, including the rights to a timely trial and state-funded legal counsel. While pretrial detainees wait an average of three months before trial, some wait up to two years. The lower courts have proven more susceptible to corruption than the higher panels, and there have been reports of violent intimidation of judges and magistrates.

In advance of the 2010 World Cup, the government set up some a number of "dedicated courts" to deal with tournament-related cases. The courts were widely lauded for their efficiency, and the justice minister announced that some elements of the temporary system would remain intact, though details were pending at year's end. The government also hired and trained an additional 40,000 police officers, who remained on the job after the World Cup to bolster the undermanned police force.

Despite constitutional prohibitions and government countermeasures, there have been reports of police torture and excessive force during arrest, interrogation, and detention. According to Amnesty International, deaths in custody increased in 2009 and 2010; according to the Independent Complaints Directory, 294 people died in police custody between April 2009 and March 2010, 90 of which were linked to "injuries sustained in custody." The Judicial Inspectorate of Prisons investigates prisoners' assault allegations but has limited resources and capacity. Prisons often fail to meet international standards and feature overcrowding, inadequate health care, and abuse of inmates by staff or other prisoners; both HIV/AIDS and tuberculosis are problems. Recent inquiries have found that corruption, maladministration, and sexual violence are rife in the penal system.

South Africa has one of the highest violent-crime rates in the world. House burglaries increased in 2010, though rates of murder, robbery, and carjacking declined. The Zuma administration has given the police more latitude to use force against criminals. Mostly due to police incapacity, vigilante activity is a problem. An August 2010 report by the Centre for Study of Violence and Reconciliation estimated that 900 people die each year in instances of vigilante justice.

The constitution prohibits discrimination based on a range of categories, including race, sexual orientation, and culture. State bodies such as the South African Human Rights Commission and the Office of the Public Prosecutor are empowered to investigate and prosecute cases of discrimination. Affirmative-action legislation has benefited previously disadvantaged groups (defined as "Africans," "Coloureds," "Asians," and as of 2008, "Chinese") in public and private employment as well as in education. Racial imbalances in the workforce persist, and a majority of the country's business assets remain white owned. The government's Black Economic Empowerment (BEE) program aims to increase the black stake in the economy, mostly by establishing race-based ownership thresholds for government tenders and licenses.

Increased illegal immigration, particularly from Zimbabwe and Mozambique, has led to a rise in xenophobic violence by police and vigilantes, including a wave of attacks in May 2008 that killed 62 suspected foreigners (21 were in fact South African) and temporarily displaced some 80,000 others. Sporadic attacks occurred in 2009 and in 2010 following the conclusion of the World Cup.

The number of foreign nationals in South Africa is contested, with estimates ranging from two to seven million, including between one and three million Zimbabweans. In April 2009, the government announced a moratorium on the deportation of Zimbabweans, and granted most of them 90-day visa waivers. The government also unveiled plans to create six-month "special dispensation permits" for many Zimbabweans, legalizing their presence and giving them access to workers' rights and basic health care and education. In September 2010, however, the government stated that it would resume the deportation of Zimbabweans without valid documents in January 2011, arguing that conditions in Zimbabwe had improved.

Separately, the nomadic Khoikhoi and Khomani San peoples, indigenous to South Africa, suffer from social and legal discrimination.

South Africa has one of the world's most liberal legal environments for homosexuals. The 2006 Civil Unions Act legalized same-sex marriage, and a 2002 Constitutional Court ruling held that homosexual couples should be allowed to adopt children. Nevertheless, homosexuals are subject to physical attacks.

The state generally protects citizens from arbitrary deprivation of their property. However, some 80 percent of farmland is owned by white South Africans, who make up 14 percent of the population. As a result, thousands of black and colored farmworkers suffer from insecure tenure rights; illegal squatting on white-owned farms is a serious problem, as are attacks on white owners. The government has vowed to transfer 30 percent of land to black owners by 2014; however, only about six percent of land had been transferred by the end of 2010, and about 90 percent of the redistributed farms had failed or were failing, according to the Ministry for Land Reform and Rural Development.

Equal rights for women are guaranteed by the constitution and promoted by the Commission on Gender Equality. While the constitution allows the option and practice of customary law, it does not allow such law to supersede women's rights as South African citizens. Nevertheless, women suffer de facto discrimination with regard to marriage (including forced marriage), divorce, inheritance, and property rights. Despite a robust legal framework, domestic violence and rape, both criminal offenses, are extremely grave problems. South Africa has one of the world's highest rates of sexual abuse. In 2009, a survey by the South African Medical Research Council found that two-fifths of male respondents admitted to being physically violent with a sexual partner, and one-quarter admitted to committing rape. A 2010 survey by the same organization found that over 37 percent of men in Gauteng admitted to rape. Zuma was put on trial for rape in 2006, though he was acquitted. Women are also subject to sexual harassment and wage discrimination in the workplace, and are not well represented in top management positions. Still, women hold 45 percent of the seats in the National Assembly and lead five of nine provincial governments; the main opposition DA party is led by Helen Zille, the premier of Western Cape Province.

* Countries are ranked on a scale of 1-7, with 1 representing the highest level of freedom and 7 representing the lowest level of freedom.

This is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.